The European Union at 60: Its future might be brighter than many expect

Rome, Italy, March 2017 (Kancelaria Premiera, Public domain)

On March 24-26th, the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome was celebrated but the birthday celebrations were accompanied by many critical voices.

As the twenty-seven EU leaders met in Rome with Pope Francis, who received the member state representatives with only British premier Theresa May deserting the event after the Brexit decision, some newspapers across Europe ran strangely eschatological headlines such as “The EU Meets with the Pope to celebrate the funeral of Europe where it was born. The cycle is completed.”

Despite such spectacular pessimism, the European Union is likely to continue its existence and to meet new challenges. Europe is bound to further transformation at many levels. In doing so, its future will be much brighter than expected by many observers today. There are a variety of reasons for such expectation.

The EU has been more successful than it’s currently given credit for

During its sixty years of existence, the bloc was more successful than often depicted. Yet, every time it made a step towards more advanced integration arrangements—from the European Economic Community in 1957 to the European Community in the 1970s and 1980s, and to the European Union in 1993—many observers argued that the bloc would sooner rather than later fall apart. This has been a recurrent topic until today, particularly in academic, economic, and political circles of the U.S. However, each time the European Union was said to be lost according to the prophets of doom, it went on just to become bigger and stronger. Over the years, the European integration model of polycentric and multilevel governance was successful against the bets of many outside its realm, since it was, and remains, a historically young and new experiment that due to its complexity, many outside still do not understand. All signs indicate that it will continue to proceed against all odds.

The major feature of the European Union is that it represents a long-term process that has only recently (by historic standards) started to be put into practice. As the former EU commission adviser, the American Jeremy Rifkin, pointed out, the “European dream” of “unity in diversity”, as reflected in an unprecedented, peaceful union of previously opposed nation-states, created a never seen before unification process between different cultures, histories, and identities without a hierarchical super-state. The “European dream” is and remains the most daring socio-economic and political project in modern history. It anticipates the needs of the greater, coalescent world, which getting smaller, will be forced to find similar arrangements of cohabitation and integration between previously conflicting nation-states. It implies that the globalized world will resemble much more the European Union than China (with its forced Unitarianism) or to the United States (as the first experiment of a “society made of the whole of humanity,” but conceived, and still too often practiced, as a “melting pot”, as the final stages of the Obama years have shown).

The EU is bound to remain relevant

There are facts that underpin these claims. Even after Brexit (which in its concrete steps may take a decade to be finalized), the European Union will remain one of the biggest single markets and unified economic spaces in the world with twenty-seven nations, 450 million citizens, and a combined GDP of EUR16 trillion (PPP), despite being barely recognized as a unity by global national players such as the US and China. Greater Europe, still including the UK, is leading in crucial future standard setting, for example, in the financial sector. In times when global banks and the UN are trying to create international standards for Impact Finance away from speculation and into in the real economy, and when global Sustainable Investment is taking off and is up 25 percent compared to 2015, Europe accounts for over half of the USD22.89 trillion global assets in sustainable investment.

Europe’s young new leaders will overcome populism

The European Union remains the socially most equilibrated geopolitical space in times of the new international debate about rapidly growing inequality, which is threatening the socio-political systems of many societies around the globe, for example, in the form of new populisms rising in the U.S., and of new authoritarianisms at work in China, Russia, or Turkey. In contrast, the EU with its system of redistribution of funds (cohesion funds) is and will be the counter-project to the UK’s and the U.S.’ growing social inequality that gave rise to damaging populism. Although there is a rise of populism and anti-cosmopolitanism throughout the Union too, the tide could be turning soon. The impact of populism has been successfully limited in Austria in the presidential elections of December 2016, and in the Netherlands’ general elections of March 2017. It is likely to be tamed also in other nations by a new generation of young European leaders determined to bring the middle and lower class voters back to voting the centrist people’s parties, as they are likely to re-align in the coming years by learning by example and experience.

The Europe of the coming years will rely on an emerging new generation of young, moderate, educated, and inclusive politicians who have already started to construct a new center against populism. Hope carriers for a new middle ground have been emerging across the Union: Emmanuel Macron in France, Matteo Renzi in Italy, and Christian Kern in Austria. There will be a new generation of politicians in Eastern and Central Europe, free from the burdens of communism and the post-communist transformation years. Europe’s young and moderate leaders are equipped to work better together in order to improve the cooperation between their states, while the anti-European populists may find better conditions to further expand their influence in re-nationalized countries disconnected from this development.

Europe’s younger citizens are enthusiastic about the EU

The youth in the EU-27 clings to Europe now more than ever. It has been positively mobilized by Brexit and the ascent of Trumpism. Its outlook has become more European at the same time as the situation in certain countries in southern Europe has become more bleak. The EU is pumping billions of solidarity funds into its crisis nations, and the youth will remember this after the situation lightens. In Central and Eastern Europe, Eurocritical governments are facing Euroenthusiastic societies, with Poland and Hungary as leaders of this trend. Euroscepticism has been marginal both among the Polish citizens and among the 800,000 Poles living in the UK. Even the Eurocritical governments of Poland and Hungary are far from aspiring to “Polexit” or “Hungarexit”, which makes any comparison to the UKIP and France’s Front National misleading. To many young people, the Brexit referendum showed the degree to which Euroscepticsm goes hand in hand with violent nationalism, manifesting itself for instance in numerous attacks on Polish citizens in the UK. According to the figures released by the UK Home Office, hate crimes soared by 41 per cent after the Brexit referendum, largely committed by those supporting the UK leaving the EU. However, the bulk of the European Union’s and the UK’s youth will remain united in their statements against any form of violence, be it pro or contra the EU, although admittedly part of the violence against EU citizens was committed by younger UK citizens, some of them stemming from disadvantaged groups.

The EU is reforming the way it operates

The reforms of the free movement principle and of the cooperation procedures regarding pressing timely core issues, such as the refugee and security crises envisaged by the EU-27 in Rome, may strengthen the Union towards a more just, differentiated, and balanced cohesion. The post-Brexit principle that the EU of the coming years will address the “big picture” questions, among them the basic protection of rights and a stronger joint foreign and global policy, leaving detailed regulations and partial issues to the single member states, can turn out to become an important stabilizing factor. This would be only a logical continuation of the EU’s principle of differentiated integration that the bloc has been applying for decades now.

The time for more qualitative “jumps” in the European integration has come, as increasingly more people in the EU expect the bloc to deliver beyond the existing institutions, services and hitherto integration steps.

Brexit may be good news

In the end, Brexit may be good news for both the United Kingdom and Europe. Large parts of Britain (mainly England and Wales) never felt fully a part of the European Union. As a consequence, EU issues of further integration were increasingly poisoning the internal British political climate, which in turn affected the process of European integration. Against this backdrop, a better partnership and progress for both Britain and the EU may be achieved, setting Britain free, while in turn dissolving its decades-long blockade against a “more perfect union” of the other member states.

The continent’s institutions and infrastructure will be strengthened by transferring EU institutions from Britain to other EU members, together with parts of the banking and financial services sector, the headquarters of enterprises active mainly in the EU and a whole generation of start-ups, artists, and talented individuals. In the process of the UK’s membership, since its accession in 1973, over-proportionally many European institutions and headquarters had been moved to the UK, which have now vowed to move back to the continent. The respective brain influx may help modernize the bloc. Among the institutions moving back to the EU are the European Banking Authority, the European Medicines Agency and the European Union Youth Orchestra, all based in London.

The EU is learning from its mistakes

The EU has realized that its role as a global bringer of civil and human rights while criticizing the whole world is not in tune with the cracks in its own normative credibility. New self-limitation comes with a new global self-assertion and the expansion of influence. It is a sensible proposal of former EU commission chief Romano Prodi that France should transfer its UN security council seat to the EU, thus sharing responsibility and duties with its European partners and strengthening Europe’s global role as a bloc. This should ignite a broader debate within the EU on Europe’s future role in the world.

A joint European army, a response to outside threats and terror as proposed by considerable part of the post-Brexit member states, is good news for European integration. The practical debate on the issue has already begun. Interestingly, one of the rather EU-critical governments—the Polish one—has suggested that the EU should become a nuclear power.

International development fosters European integration

The authoritarianisms at Europe’s borders, such as in Turkey or Russia, and the election of populists, such as Donald Trump in the US, can be become paradoxically new motors of European integration. While any protectionist policies are likely to hurt Europe economically, the EU could look for ways to deepen trade relations with countries abandoned by the US. For instance, after the Trump administration pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP, the biggest trade agreement in history, signed in February 2016, involving twelve of the Pacific Rim countries including Japan but China), it might also be a chance for the EU to accelerate the current talks between the EU and Japan on their own Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

A sound future debate has started

Finally, a sound joint debate on the future of the EU has started. Juncker’s five future scenarios for the EU presented on March 1st are ultimately strong. They can form the basis for a constructive debate about feasible models of concrete joint progress. But there are prerequisites for such positive outlook. In the Italian national celebration preceding the Rome EU-27 meeting, with the two chambers of the Italian parliament united in honor of the EU on March 22nd, Italian president Sergio Mattarella stated: “Europe is often insecure about which joint route concretely to embrace. We now need long-term visions, with the capability to experiment new and partly bold paths […] We must direct the attention and the engagement of the Union towards them.”

And that means, transformed into concrete actions:

  1. Fix youth unemployment, particularly in the Southern states of the Union. A positive trend is already visible in this sector but more needs to be done.
  2. Proceed towards a new culture of inner-European debate by strengthening the participation of the youth, independent of party affiliation or ideology.
  3. Strengthen those elected democratic institutions who are directly related to citizens, such as the EU parliament thus “completing the still unstable union towards a more balanced one,” as Mattarella put it in another occasion. Also, Europeanize the European Parliament by eventually creating joint electoral lists for parties from different countries, as it is long overdue.
  4. Fix the outer borders in order to tutelage the openness of the internal ones according to the Schengen agreement of open borders, for example by providing more competences and more funds to the European outer border protection agency FRONTEX. Illegal mass migration to Europe has to be stopped in order to expand and refine controlled legal immigration.
  5. Fight terrorism in more professional joint ways by a better exchange of data and information. More competences, better funding and more personnel are to be given to the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre INTCEN.
  6. Establish a better coordinated foreign policy by strengthening the European External Action Service.
  7. Solve the double split between East-West and North-South within the EU. That would please both the Southern and Eastern member states while putting some additional burdens on the others.
  8. Fix the Eurozone by increasing the capacity of the European Central Bank (ECB) which should be able to act independently and openly.
  9. Put a much stronger focus on the development of a common European public sphere, including a joint civil religion.
  10. Generally, make the EU more efficient in its decision-making but also more democratic and more coherent one.

Overall, the European Union, on its sixtieth birthday, has to rejuvenate itself. It has to realize that U2 Singer Bono was right in asserting at the congress of the European People’s Party on March 7th, 2014 in Dublin that “for all this progress, for all these achievements, nearly sixty years after the Treaty of Rome, Europe is an economic entity that still needs to become a social entity. Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling.” Among others, German chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have understood this. As she assessed at the Rome celebrations, “we have to provide new energy to the European project by strengthening its ideals.”

If Europe’s homework will be done properly, and if mind and heart will join and cross the bridges between European nations to form a true “unity in diversity”, a unity in which difference is not assimilated but freely brought together in pride and hope by the new generations, the future of a more conscious, more balanced, and more united post-Brexit EU may be much brighter than expected. Such an EU may be the inspiration for others. Or as Jeremy Rifkin put it: “We, Americans used to say that the American Dream is worth dying for. The new European Dream is worth living for.”

Roland Benedikter, PhD, is a Research Professor of Political Analysis at the Willy Brandt Centre for European Studies of the University of Wroclaw, Research Affiliate of the Global Studies Division (SGS) of Stanford University and Global Futures Scholar of the European Academy for Applied Research of Bolzano-Bozen.

Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Political Science, Willy Brandt Centre for German and European Studies, University of Wroclaw in Poland. He was Kosciuszko foundation fellow at Center for European Studies, Harvard University in 2014 and Visiting professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University in 2015.

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